The Huffington Post and other major media outlets have been abuzz lately with discussion of "3D printing's next frontier": guns. Specifically, the focus has been on a University of Texas law school student who had the 3D printer he leased reclaimed after announcing he would begin printing "Wiki weapons" (i.e., receivers for assault rifles and crude handguns) and freely distributing the plans for these firearms over the Internet. Desktop manufacturing company Stratsys felt that the student in question, Cody Wilson, was flouting existing federal firearms laws and stated that it is not its policy to "knowingly allow its printers to be used for illegal purposes." Wilson was also booted off Indiegogo, where he tried to fundraise for the project.
Much of the coverage focused on the aspect of the exciting new technology involved, which "promises to revolutionize manufacturing" in the United States. Less-discussed was the stated motivation behind the project and the radical political views of its founder.
To Cody Wilson's credit, he has not been secretive about what he believes and why he wants Americans to mass-produce firearms in their homes. The Defense Distributed Twitter feed and his personal Twitter feed are a screed of far-right-wing ideology. He calls President Obama a "bloodless sociopath" with a "Marxist Presidency," promotes Birtherism, criticizes Paul Ryan's budget as "a timid, 30 year project to barely blunt spending," embraces nullification legislation, endorses voter suppression laws, extols Ron Paul and Darrell Issa, mocks Sandra Fluke's sexual habits, rails against public schools, attacks the "Affordable Care Act," accuses Democrats of "laying waste to Detroit," disparages cops and defends George Zimmerman. He also runs Defending Liberty, a PAC that is working to eliminate state income tax laws.
Wilson is equally up-front about the purpose of his Wiki Weapon project. The website of his online collective for the project, "Defense Distributed," states that, "WikiWep is about challenging gun control and regulation." Or, as he put it to Slashdot: "This project really is about 'Fuck your laws.' You know what I'm saying? You know what? I don't like this legal regime."
Wilson's idea is in fact "Second Amendment remedies" taken to the extreme, and he makes no bones about it. "To be clear, the Second Amendment enshrines the right to bear arms with the understanding that a free people must ultimately remain able topple their own government," he writes on the Defending Liberty website. "If you believe in the American revolution DONATE NOW" its homepage exclaims. In a Tweet, Wilson playfully adds that the PAC is "working for strong laws to keep guns out of the hands of politicians" in order to maintain parity in civilian/military firepower.
Wilson sees gun regulation as "tyranny of the majority." In response, he hopes to create a not-so-subtle threat to our elected officials. "How do governments behave if they must one day operate on the assumption that any and every citizen has near instant access to a firearm through the Internet?" he asks. "Let's find out." This explicit threat of political violence is "the classic defense against Socialism." To "international kleptocrats" Wilson warns, "You want to announce treaties and new legal regimes announcing greater and greater eras and stratas of gun control, but listen it's over. You don't understand the world you're living in. We're bringing something else into being."
Indeed, if Wilson's vision is one day realized, a very different political system will come into being and it won't look anything like the constitutional republic our Founders worked a lifetime to bring about.
Certainly, the men who signed the Declaration of Independence had strong words to say about "tyranny" and "throwing off" despotic government. But in the wake of our successful Revolution, new challenges arose, and the thinking of our Founders changed dramatically. After seven years of war with England, the new government had no ability to pay or feed its troops. Mob violence ruled the streets in many American cities, with Daniel Shays and his armed followers closing local courts in Western Massachusetts. Pirates and the British Navy were inhibiting American commerce. The Founding Fathers who gathered in Philadelphia in May of 1787 to fashion a new system of government were more concerned about licentiousness and excesses in democracy than tyranny. This was reflected in the very first line of the Constitution: "To form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." This elegant statement of purpose confirms that our Founders saw a more energetic, more capable federal government as the best possible guarantor of individual rights.
In contrast, the radical libertarianism of Cody Wilson cares not at all about domestic tranquility or establishing a system of justice. He prefers an anarchical society where government lacks the ability not only to accomplish great things, but also to do the mundane, like ensuring that judgments are enforced and laws executed. In the resulting chaos, individuals with privately printed guns would fight it out to vindicate their rights. Might would make right and an arms race would ensue. To me, this idea has all the hallmarks of a failed state, not a model democracy. The concept of a government "monopoly on force" may sound inconsistent with the political traditions of a country steeped in stories of its own revolution, but it is the fundamental organizing principle of any nation-state. At the Virginia ratifying convention, Second Amendment author James Madison, responding to Patrick Henry's complaint that the new Constitution gave too much power over the states' militia to the federal Congress, said, "There never was a government without force. What is the meaning of government? An institution to make people do their duty. A government leaving it to a man to do his duty, or not, as he pleases, would be a new species of government, or rather no government at all."
Articulate and clean-cut, Wilson plays the part of the cultured intellectual, even when he is discussing the use of political violence. This is undoubtedly intended to make his message more palatable to those in the mainstream who would otherwise tune him out immediately. But he's also told his audience, point blank, "Don't print a gun unless you plan on using it." And sometimes he loses his cool altogether, such as when he Tweeted "Pull Obama out into the STREET for this TREASON!" in response to an executive order on "National Defense Resources Preparedness." Wilson believes that his capacity to do violence to others is the only thing undergirding his status as a citizen. And if he smells "tyranny" and decides to start shooting--killing someone's parent, or spouse, or child? Well, don't expect him to face a jury of his peers for his crimes. He's made it clear he wants a private court system, not the one designed by our Founders.
Let's be clear. The Wiki Weapon project is not the work of a dispassionate techie seeking to push the outer limits of modern technology. Instead it is a blatant, undisguised attempt to radically alter our system of government. We don't know if the project will be producing serviceable handguns and assault rifles anytime soon, but if it does--and if these weapons avoid regulation--political violence could one day replace political dialogue as the hallmark of our democratic system. For more than two centuries, the U.S. Constitution and its amendments have secured the blessings of liberty for Americans. If extremists like Cody Wilson have their way, "the guys with the [printed] guns" will make new rules for the future.